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All About Bordeaux


Bordeaux is the largest wine region in France.  It is a region historically aligned with blending different grape varieties into a single cuvee.  This works on an aesthetic level, as each grape variety brings different aromatic and flavor elements to the table, as well as in a practical, farmer-mentality way, as the grapes have different ripening needs and growing conditions, which can make or break a harvest when the weather doesn’t cooperate.  The region has a strong connotation with red wines, though its dry whites and dessert wines are also remarkable and distinctive, definitely a must-try for the adventurous wine lover!


This region is defined by the Gironde River, which essentially divides the region into “Right Bank” and “Left Bank”.  The “Right Bank”, or northern bank of the Gironde, is dominated more by Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  These grape varieties are more receptive to this area’s clay- and limestone-dominated soils, which generally leads to cooler overall temperatures, which necessitates earlier-ripening grape varieties. These wines are about elegance and finesse, with moderate tannic structure and generally a good amount of earthiness and spice.  Flavors of red and black plums, black cherry, and blackberries are fairly common in the wines.  Some of the more prominent subregions include St-Emilion, Pomerol, Fronsac, Blaye, and Bourg.


The “Left Bank”, home of the famous Médoc chateaux, is where Cabernet Sauvignon dominates.  These areas were made famous by the 1855 Classification, a ranking system developed in 1855 that has remained largely unchanged for over 160 years.  These original classified chateaux (so-called “growths”) now represent some of the most expensive and sought-after wines in the world.  They are organized into 5 “growths” or tiers that are supposed to represent ascending levels of quality for producers in the Médoc.  The wines from this part of Bordeaux tend to be more tannic and structured than those of the “Left Bank”.  Common flavors include black currants, blackberries, cedar, and dried herbs.  Some of the more well-known communes of the Médoc include Pauillac, St-Estephe, Margaux, St-Julien, and Listrac. 


Another noteworthy subregion of Bordeaux is the famous village of Sauternes.  This is home to some of the world’s rarest and most sought-after dessert wines.  Painstakingly hand-picked individual grapes are selected from the bunch when they are ready: exhibiting extreme concentration of flavors in grapes that are affected by the benevolent noble rot, a specific strain of fungus that is nurtured by the humid conditions near the Garonne and Ciron rivers.  These wines exhibit concentrated flavors of pineapple, apricot, mango, and white flowers, and make a surprisingly good pair with as many savory dishes as they do sweet desserts. 


As with most of France’s wine regions, there are legal requirements as to what grape varieties are allowed to go into bottles of wine labeled Bordeaux.  Here, red wines are allowed to be made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Carmenere.  Whites may include Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Muscadelle, and Sauvignon Gris.  Here is a quick synopsis of the grape varieties’ characteristics:


Cabernet Sauvignon: The grape variety is a natural offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc and has become the world’s most planted grape variety.  It is characterized by its dark color and high tannin content.  Common flavors include black currants, blackberry, black cherry, black plum, green herbs, mild green pepper, pepper, clove, anise, cigar box, cedar, and smoke.  Aging in oak barrels also brings out flavors of mocha, vanilla, coffee, toasted nuts, cinnamon, and baking spices.  Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines can be very age-worthy and can benefit from years or decades of aging.


Merlot: Ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon and has thinner skin.  Common flavors include plums, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, red and black cherries, and some spiciness.  Merlot also lends itself well to oak aging, which brings in flavors of vanilla, dark chocolate, coffee, and cinnamon.


Cabernet Franc: Cabernet Franc is generally a little less tannic and not as full-bodied as Cabernet Sauvignon.  Red fruit flavors are fairly common, with red cherry, raspberry, cranberry, and red currant fruits being the most common.  The variety also tends to exhibit a mild green pepper and herbal component, especially in cooler vintages.


Malbec: This variety is less common in its native France than in Argentina, where nearly 6x the acreage is grown.  Malbec is a full-bodied, higher tannin grape variety that exhibits dark fruit flavors of blackberry, black cherry, fig, blueberry, and raspberry liqueur.  Floral and spice notes are also common.


Petit Verdot: Petit Verdot is a very dark-colored and tannic variety and is the last to ripen in Bordeaux, accounting for its smaller planted acreage.  Purple flowers, figs, black currants, blackberry jam, and lots of spices are the variety’s most common flavor descriptors. 


Carmenere: This variety has also found an enthusiastic home in South America, becoming one of Chile’s signature grape varieties.  Its flavor profile is similar to Merlot, though it is even more prone to herbal and green pepper flavors.  Plum, fig, black cherry, and dark chocolate are common flavors encountered in its wines.


Sauvignon Blanc: Citrus flavors and a zippy acidity characterize this variety.  Grapefruit, lemon, gooseberry, green apple, white peach, green pear, and unripe pineapple are common fruit descriptors, along with a distinctive grassy or herbal quality. 


Semillon: Semillon is also a high-acid variety, but is particularly prized for its susceptibility to the botrytis fungus that transforms the grapes into concentrated, dried specimens appropriate for dessert wine.  Flavors of green and yellow apple, lemon, lime, green fig, beeswax, and straw are fairly common to encounter in this grape.


Muscadelle: Muscadelle is very limited in its planting, but its signature is its floral aromas, which is desirable in both dry and dessert wines.


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